Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Alternate Title:  Battle Fatigue

One sentence synopsis:    Bilbo Baggins and the Dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield must hold Erebor against a series of armies seeking the fabled riches of the Lonely Mountain.

Things Havoc liked:  And so passes The Hobbit, son of Lord of the Rings, King of all Fantasy.

Among those I know, I have been one of the more constant evangelists in favor of the Hobbit series since its inception two years ago. No, I don't think it's the equal of the original films (at least the first one wasn't), but I do think that, given the constraints they were under and the mandate from god-knows-who to make a trilogy out of the book, that they have, overall, done a decent-to-excellent job, depending on the moment and the subject in question. And following the cliffhanger (sort of) ending of the second movie, I was stoked to see what Peter Jackson and his band of wizards might do given the last bit of the Hobbit, and all the appendices in the legendarium to rely upon for material.

So let's start by focusing on what they did right.

The advantage that Peter Jackson has had throughout this process, one that Tolkien himself did not, has always been that Jackson is making his films in full knowledge of what the Lord of the Rings was and would become. Tolkien wrote the Hobbit in 1937, seventeen years before the publication of the Lord of the Rings, and it despite retroactive alterations in the later editions of the work, it remains a much earlier viewpoint on a considerably less-mature world that would evolve along with its author in the decades to come. Jackson, on the other hand, has not only the Lord of the Rings books, but his actual films to fall back on and reference, allowing him to flesh the admittedly light narrative of the Hobbit out with material relating to the earlier films. So it is that in this movie, at long last, we get to see something I have desired to see ever since the original Trilogy, namely more of the major powers of the Free Peoples, Elrond, Galadriel, and Saruman the White, laying down their indescribable power in illustration of just why it is everyone is so deferential to them at the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring. The sequences I am speaking of are not long, nor particularly relevant to the plot, but they are pure, unmitigated awesome, as we get to see Saruman, not yet fallen, dispense with the enemies of the Free Peoples with all the fire that he could bring forth, as well as just why it was that Sauron always counted Galadriel, last of the Noldorin Lords, and eldest living thing on Middle Earth (presumed) as among his most dangerous foes.

But enough of my nerdgasms, what of the movie itself? As before, the actors remain excellent. Martin Freeman has always been my favorite of the bunch, if only because of the level-headedness he brings to Bilbo, so unlike the Hobbits of the previous series, the only sane person in the room, much of the time, and a good rationale for why Gandalf thought so highly of him. Richard Armitage's Thorin is given a tougher role this time, as the Dragon's hoard drives him to distraction and the brink of madness, but Armitage has always played the role with a certain noble gravitas to him that easily survives the transition. I remain a fan of Lee Pace, now better known as Rowan the Accuser from Guardians of the Galaxy, whose Party King Thranduil of the elves is a deliciously campy lunatic. Pace seems to be desperately trying to do a Tim Curry impression, but there's a case to be made for that sort of thing in Tolkien's world, which is after all a world of broad archetypes. Ian McKellan is as grumpy as ever as Gandalf the Grey (whom I always preferred to the White version), and Evangeline Lily, whose character of Tauriel was made up out of whole cloth to try and balance out just slightly the massive sausage fest that Tolkien's works always were, still does a fine job with a character inserted by authorial fiat into events that originally did not involve her. With a cast this large, there's not much room for new additions to this, the third movie, but I did enjoy seeing Billy Connoly show up as Dain Ironfoot, when it came time for the titular battle to commence.

But what's most important about the third Hobbit is not new, but old and familiar. The film has all of the spectacle of wide-scale violence and close-scale choreography, of an ancient landscape inhabited by strange creatures whose existence needs no justification, of a heroic fantasy, in short, derived from the world of the poetic Eddas and Beowulf. It has always been one of my favorite worlds to explore cinematically, be it because of New Zealand's priceless scenery, or Jackson's priceless cinematography and design work. Whatever the flaws the movie has, there is nothing ever wrong with simply inhabiting Tolkien's world for a few more hours, and nothing, seemingly can change that.

Things Havoc disliked:  But oh, do they try.

I want to be clear. I didn't hate the third Hobbit film, as even a mediocre Peter Jackson-Middle Earth film is still quite a thing, but I must confess to a staggering disappointment, not merely with the third movie but, retroactively, with the second. I was one of those who defended the ending of the second movie, which came out of the blue and with quite a shock to everyone who had assumed the films would be ending in a different place entirely. My rationale was that by ending the movie with Smaug still alive (it's been a year, people. Spoiler protections have a statute of limitations), they had the opportunity to change things in an interesting way. Who was to say they had to kill Smaug in the first five minutes of the third film. After all, doing that would have ruined the pace of the next movie. Maybe Jackson had an innovative plan in mind.

... no. No I'm afraid he didn't. Ruining the pace of this movie is exactly what he does.

The problem isn't the dragon, though there's definitely that. The problem is that the third movie, as the title suggests, concerns itself almost solely with the battle in question, and one entire film about a massive battle is too much battling. Two years ago, I spoke in my first Hobbit review, of Battle Fatigue, of the boredom that comes over an audience when you do nothing but show them context-free violence between armies of CG characters, and this movie may become the new poster child of that concept, for that's all there is here. Not that it's all awful fighting, mind you. I quite liked certain elements, such as the Dwarven shieldwall formed by Dain's army, or watching Thranduil slice motherfuckers up with twinned elf-blades. But this much unceasing combat, presented without a break or even context, just gets old. We almost never stop to ascertain strategy or the overall flow of the battle, resulting in confusion when armies (there are five of them, remember) appear in places without having encountered the other, hostile armies in between. Forces do things for reasons I don't understand, coming to the defense of people they did not like moments ago for no remuneration, and the battle entirely lacks any sense of ebb and flow. Our heroes kill and kill and kill faceless waves of armored enemies until all of a sudden they do not need to kill any more. I have seen far more tense and meaningful battles in the Total War game series.

And even leaving the grand picture aside, the decisions of what to focus on in this movie baffle me. Was it really necessary to give Legolas yet another 20-minute epic battle sequence against a particularly nasty orc? Not only is Legolas effectively using cheat codes in these films, but we know he survives to see the Lord of the Rings movies, meaning all sense of tension is entirely absent from the fights he engages in. I defended Legolas' inclusion in the second film because the movie made him out to be an asshole and actually let him get the crap beat out of him a bit, two decisions I applauded. But here he's back to the same old invincible Aryan super-elf that everyone has complained about. Another massive swatch of screentime is lavished on Ryan Gage's Alfid, a comic relief bit character from the last film who this time takes on the role of a slightly-less-annoying Jar-Jar Binks. So much time is devoted to this character and his wacky, cowardly antics, that I assumed Jackson was setting the character up for some kind of redemption arc, or other matter of serious weight. Alas, no, the character exists only to occasionally intrude on everything with bad slapstick and the occasional admittedly funny line ("It takes a real man to wear a corset!") And in including all this, we miss an opportunity to do other things, like say, resolve key elements of the plot. Bilbo himself seems like he was shortchanged in this film, having less screentime than several other actors despite theoretically being the main character, and events such as his departing the company at the end of the quest seem glossed over and rushed. I realize that in sidelining Bilbo for the last act, the filmmakers are following the books' lead, but that's no excuse any more than departing from them would be a cause, in and of itself, for condemnation. Martin Freeman has always been the best thing out of these three movies, and I wanted to see more of him, regardless of whether or not it cut into Legolas' contractually-obligated "awesome time" or Jackson's conception of Wacky Hijinx.

Final thoughts:   I hoped for great things from the third Hobbit movie, but like the Hunger Games before it, great things were not in the cards. As I mentioned above, the film was not awful or anything, but it was strictly mediocre, albeit flashy and filled with spectacle. After six films however, it takes more than just waving orc banners in front of our faces to excite us with another jaunt in Middle Earth, particularly when all we're here to do is watch ranks of CG characters battle one another as in a video game. At least in those I have control of the action and can initiate my own will, not to mention keep track of what is actually going on.

I admit to being curious about the directors cuts of the three Hobbit films, as all three director's cuts of the Lord of the Rings movies improved on their respective theatrical cuts. With luck, I will discover that all of the meat and weight that I was missing in this movie sits within. But as it stands here, I cannot recommend this movie wholeheartedly, not even to those who, like me, enjoyed the first two outings. Maybe I've gotten older, maybe Jackson's lost his touch, or maybe there has simply been too much of this sort of thing over the last ten years. But impossible as I thought it once, I think, at long last, I have reached the point where, when it comes to this rendition of the Lord of the Rings and all its ancillary materials, I have finally seen enough.

Of course, if someone were to decide to make the Silmarillion....

Final Score:  5/10

Next Time:  Storytime with the best actor in the world.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Imitation Game

Alternate Title:  A Very Queer Man

One sentence synopsis:    Alan Turing works at Bletchley Park in an effort to break the German Enigma code while endeavoring to conceal his homosexuality during WWII.

Things Havoc liked:In 1954, Alan Turing, one of the great pioneers of computer technology, was murdered by the British government, insofar as the medication the government had forced him to take to repress his homosexuality drove him to commit suicide. In doing this, the British government acted no differently than any other government on the Earth at the time (and a good many today), but the event, atoned for only long after the fact by people not alive at the time it occurred, was nonetheless a terrible crime committed against one of Britain's greatest unsung heroes. Of course Hollywood cannot resist a good story with good liberal political overtones, so at the very least we have The Imitation Game, a biographical film of the great Sir Alan, one of the strangest British persons of all time, and portrayed by one of the strangest British persons alive today, Benedict Cumberbatch.

I kid, I kid. Cumberbatch, one of the outstanding actors I have discovered over the course of this project, only appears weird because of the weird people whom he periodically chooses to play, a lineup that has varied in only the short time I've been doing this from a homosexual spy to a spineless Nebraskan wimp, to Julian Assange, to a dragon, to Khan. And now he plays Alan Turing, who according to this movie was not simply gay but also possibly the most awkward person in British history, which is a statement and a half for those of you who've never met an Englishman. Turing was, after all, a certified genius, and if Hollywood has taught me anything, it's that certified geniuses are always irascible bastards, barely able to interact with their fellow human beings, forever locked out of the world by their tremendous gifts which none others share. But this is Benedict Cumberbatch, a man I've seen people compare unironically to Lawrence Olivier, which means when things get awkward, they get Shakespearianly awkward. An early sequence in the film where the newly-arrived Turing persists in taking every question that his colleagues ask him as to whether he wants to get some lunch absolutely literally is almost hard to watch, as is a later moment when, in an effort to warm up to the self-same colleagues, he tells possibly the worst joke in the world. The rest is all standard House-style material, in which he unthinkingly dismisses everyone around him as uneducated clods who will only interrupt his research, unable to understand why this would annoy anyone. This would not work from a lesser actor, as this character would be so annoying to the audience that we would reject him entirely. Cumberbatch is not a lesser actor.

Neither are most of his co-stars. I go back and forth on what I think of Keira Knightly, as she has had the misfortune of making her career out of the decent-to-awful Pirates of the Caribbean series of Gore Verbinski films, and yet I don't have the same level of antipathy for her that I do for someone like, say, Jennifer Garner. Here she plays Joan Clarke MBE, a fellow codebreaker at Bletchley Park, whose role in the film, contrary to my concerned expectations from the trailer, is not actually to insert a straight romance into a story about a gay man, but actually drawn almost entirely from reality. A skilled cryptologist and numismatist, Clarke also served, for a time at least, as Turing's "beard", arranging an engagement with him that would permit him to maintain the fiction of being straight, and her the fiction of being "properly" respectable. Knightly does a credible job with the material she's given, and while I had questioned the purpose of her character, it appears in this case that I should have done more research, as the filmmakers knew more about the subject than I did.

The rest of the cast poses no difficulties. Mark Strong is a pimp, as is Charles Dance, and an opportunity to see both of them work is always welcome. Strong plays legendary SIS/MI6-chief Stewart Menzies, one of Turing's biggest backers, and one of the few to recognize the true potential of Enigma's scope for snooping and influencing events. Strong more or less plays the character like he might James Bond, but I can hardly fault that. Dance meanwhile brings all his Tywin Lannister gravitas to the role of Colonel Alastair Denniston, portraying him like the only adult in a room full of man-children (which is not all that far from the truth). Watchmen's Matthew Goode, finally finding a role he isn't awful in, manages to play a fairly difficult role in the form of Hugh Alexander, a fellow codebreaker who has the unenviable task of having to find a way to warm up to an intensely unlikeable Turing. Midway through the film, Goode manages to defuse a scene which could have been nauseatingly coy, one I was dreading from the trailers, where all of Turing's compatriots stand up for him to the accompaniment of swelling music. He does this by shifting the focus from Turing's likeability to his evident genius, admitting, reluctantly, that he does stand the best chance of anyone of actually defeating Enigma.

Things Havoc disliked: It's a history film. You knew this was coming.

I don't demand absolute historical fidelity in my historical movies. One of my favorite films is Gladiator, after all, a movie that has about as much to do with the actual history of the 2nd century Roman Empire as Iron Skies has to do with WWII. What I demand is that the movie respect the history it is about enough to present a credible version, and The Imitation Game does not. Yes, it's true that one of the major advantages unlocked by the ULTRA project was the ability to find German U-boats, but U-boats simply did not operate the way they are shown in this film, with a dense mass of them forming up like a school of fish before hurling sixty-odd torpedoes at their blissfully ignorant targets. That alone would be forgivable if it weren't for the fact that, having decoded Enigma, Turing and his band of merry mathematicians then find themselves having to decide whether or not to warn a convoy of British ships that they are about to be attacked, weighing the odds that such an action might lead the Germans to discover that Enigma has been broken. Much pathos and drama are wrung from these decisions, as, of course, one of the codebreakers' brother is on the convoy and will die if warning is not given...

Um... bullshit. Granted, this whole scenario is partly based on reality, likely a reference to the famous "Coventry Question" that Winston Churchill supposedly faced during the Blitz (wherein he is rumored to have allowed the Germans to erase Coventry so as to preserve British anti-bomber intelligence sources). But the whole point there is that Churchill, or at the very least his war cabinet, was the one to make these decisions, not a half-dozen anti-social mathematicians locked up in a manor in Buckinghamshire. The movie tries to turn this entire incident into some kind of "god complex" absurdity involving Turing, a kind of "how far will you let the cold mathematics take you" thing. And when Turing, of course, decides to preserve the secret (unilaterally it appears), the result appears to be the destruction of half the Royal Navy, as battleships and aircraft carriers are sent to the bottom in their dozens. I must have missed that part of the war histories somewhere.

The rest of the film is equally historically mishandled, and once again for no reason at all. That Turing had no actual interaction with MI6 during the war I don't mind. Any excuse to see more of Mark Strong is worth making. But the film goes so far as to have Turing dealing with Soviet spies from the ring of Philby and MacLean, and passing secret messages through MI6 for Soviet consumption, circumventing Churchill along the way. This isn't history, it's pulp fiction, which is fine in a pulp movie, but not in a sombre historical biopic. Alan Turing was a great man and a towering figure of the cryptological war, to say nothing of the father of modern computers. It is unnecessary to further turn him into George Smiley.

Final thoughts:   I know most people don't share my obsessions with the minutiae of history, but this is not just the ramblings of an angry fanboy upset that someone forgot to conjugate elvish correctly. By trying to turn Turing into something he was manifestly not, it undermines the question of who he actually was, which presumably was the entire point of making a biopic about him in the first place. I won't pretend this "ruins the movie" or something, for it does not, as Cumberbatch's performance is excellent, and I do enjoy seeing these actors act at one another. I just wish that the filmmakers had some faith in the story they had in front of them rather than the one they made up from whole cloth.

After all, if they were going to do that much, why not make a movie wherein Alan Turing was the leader of a renegade faction of the Illuminati, assassinated in his prime for daring to break humanity free of the static reality around them and enable them to use information technology to reach for the metaphysical stars? I'd certainly go see it.

Final Score:  6.5/10

Next Time:  The last chapter of the greatest fantasy ever told.

Sunday, December 28, 2014


Alternate Title:  Director in the Dark

One sentence synopsis:    A sociopath tries to strike it big as a freelance news cameraman chasing crime and accident stories in nocturnal Los Angeles.

Things Havoc liked: I give up.  I surrender.  My hypocrisy only goes so far.  Jake Gyllenhaal is a good actor.  And I enjoy watching him in movies.  Are you happy now?!

I have a series of actors that I have no use for, and many of them have featured on this little project before.  Vincent D'onofrio.  Jennifer Garner.  Anybody commonly associated with Tyler Perry.  Gyllenhaal was, for many years, a featured player on my list, probably due to his roles as a teenager and young man in such dreck as The Day After Tomorrow, October Sky, Prince of Persia, and Donnie Darko (yeah, I said it!)  But like Joshua Gordon Levitt before him, Gyllenhaal just kept making movies.  Good movies.  Movies like Source Code and Zodiac and End of Watch.  And there's only so many movies I can enjoy by someone before I can't maintain the fiction anymore.  There was a time when Leonardo DiCaprio was that whining little snot from Titanic, after all.

Nightcrawler, a character study by first-time director Dan Gilroy, is a tight, careful film, focused relentlessly on one of the weirder characters I've seen this year.  Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, an strange, socially-stunted sociopath, a man who apes and analyzes the emotional reactions of the people around him more than he shares them.  This is a concept that has been explored before, most notably perhaps in the Showtime series Dexter, save that here the character is not a serial killer but a "nightcrawler", a freelance news cameraman who spends his nights seeking out footage of accidents, crime, or bloodshed to sell to morning news channels, the gorier and "rawer", the better.  This is not an occupation that lends itself well to a balanced emotional state to begin with, and Lou takes to it like a duck to water, starting out with a single camcorder and winding up with a full-fledged production studio, assisted along the way by his absolute lack of fear, a head full of self-empowerment business slogans, and a complete antipathy to social norms that would normally restrain someone from filming the dying or worse.

And that's really all there is to it.  Nightcrawler, like Taxi Driver before it (or this year's Locke) is a movie that is about one subject, and which seeks nothing beyond chronicling his career wherever it goes.  There are, of course, other characters he encounters, most notably Riz Ahmed playing Rick, an out-of-work latino laborer whom Gyllenhaal recruits as a navigator and secondary cameraman, who only slowly grows to realize just who he has begun moonlighting for.  But Gyllenhaal is front and center here, a thin, wiry figure who manages nonetheless to evoke a great deal of presence by the sheer absence of regular social norms that he evidences.  This is not to say that he is awkward, indeed like many real sociopaths, he is charming and witty when the occasion calls for it.  But it is visibly all an act, and when the occasion calls for it, the frankly predatory side of his persona comes bubbling to the fore with impressive facility.  Never does Gyllenhaal go completely wild-eyed maniac, but you can, at most times, see the possibility of it within him, as though at any moment he is engaged in cold calculation as to whether he is liable to get the best results from a smile and a witty remark, or from an act of inhuman violence.  Either one is fine by him.

Things Havoc disliked: Gyllenhaal I have finally come around to, but the same is not true of every actor or actress I dislike, and so we get to Rene Russo, whom I have liked more and more as she has done fewer and fewer things.  About the limit of my tolerance for her was as Freya, wife of Odin, in the Thor movies, a role which required only a few short scenes and nothing more.  As a full-fledged character, Russo isn't terrible, but she is playing a pastiche of a cliche, a news director for a struggling TV station who is willing to do "anything" to get the footage she needs.  Russo does her best to conjure up the required desperation for a role like this, but she comes across like she's reading cue cards, as she flip-flops from a hard-assed news reporter to a vulnerable victim in the schemes of our main protagonist.  She also has the unenviable task of playing stand-in for the author once it comes time to soapbox windily about how ethical the news "used to be", and how things are "so different now" because we live in a fallen age and blah blah blah.  A tertiary character (Mad Men's Kevin Rahm) exists solely to pop up every so often to recite windy dialogue about how Russo has abandoned her conscience and done terrible things.  Fine, I suppose there's something to be said there.  But then the film decides that it's not enough Russo show no ethics, she has to do stupid things for the sake of increasing her own crepulence, including giving up on the chance to be the first to break a huge story so that she can smash more gore into her lineup.  I have no doubt there are news directors who act this way, but most of them don't last long when they start confusing the quest for violence with the quest for money, the latter of which is the real Holy Grail of media.

Final thoughts:   I actually enjoyed Nightcrawler considerably more than I expected to, as the movie, despite a fairly short horizon, manages to generate a sufficiently deranged atmosphere (something Los Angeles is always good at generating) that despite the manifestly evil things Lou is doing, you have a perverse desire to continue watching him do them.  The last 45 minutes or so is an escalating lesson in proper suspense-crafting, not from any of the old standbys of Killer-in-the-house or whatnot, but from Hitchcock's old saw that when a bomb under a table goes off, it is action, and when it does not, it is suspense.  The film's ambitions of being a biting media satire hold it back, particularly when it starts to get preachy about the good-old-days, but as a character study and a vehicle for Gyllenhaal to act creepy and weird, it has very little to speak against it.  And while there's still something about Gyllenhaal that just rubs me the wrong way, it's gotten increasingly hard for me to defend a dislike for an actor that keeps turning in good performance after good performance.

Eventually, it seems, even my ego has its limits.

Final Score:  7/10

Next Week:  The most British man in the world plays the most British man in the world.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Interview

Alternate Title:  A Jolly Jaunt in the People's Paradise

One sentence synopsis:    A shallow television personality and his producer/best friend go to North Korea to interview Kim Jong Un.

A Note From Management:  We are currently attempting to determine what happened here and how this review came about. No offense is intended towards anyone with enough military hardware to make credible threats. We apologize for any inconvenience that may have been caused. Those responsible for sacking those previously responsible for incidents such as these have themselves been sacked.

Things Havoc liked:  I have never been a great fan of James Franco, nor of Seth Rogan, but in all fairness, last year's "This is the End" was riotously funny despite those two doing more or less exactly the things I have disliked them for in the past. As such, I had rather ambivalent feelings about The Interview, appearing as it did to contain everything I hated, yet required to take certain things on faith. It appeared for a while that my ambivalence on the part of this film was going to be rendered irrelevant, after North Korean hackers threatened Sony with assorted violent retributions if they did not pull the release of the film, but fortunately, since no major company would ever agree to a policy that cowardly, debased, and counter-productive, I was given the opportunity to witness what is surely, a part of history.

What can be said in the film's favor then? To begin with, like This is the End before it, The Interview is a film made with care. Scathing pillory is not something that rewards sloppiness, and as the previous film knew precisely what the sort of Hollywood excess they were skewering was. This film, similarly, has done its homework, down to details such as the composition of flower bundles handed out to foreign dignitaries on the tarmac of Pyongyang, the songs sung by the obligatory identically-dressed masses of schoolchildren drafted for such occasions, and the size and scale of the rawhide whips used to beat the political prisoners in North Korea's mountain prison camps (the lowland ones have a different climate, different barometric pressure, and consequently, different loyalty-enforcement instruments). Particular praise should go to Randall Park, whom I've not seen before, but who here has the unenviable task of portraying the Dear Leader Kim Jeong Un. Park's portrayal is masterful, particularly the first interview, where he smilingly and charmingly disarms our bumbling heroes with imported liquor and classical music as his staff hurriedly cover up the bodies of the young women he raped to death that morning (I'm told this actually happened during a meeting with the Chinese Ambassador last year, forcing the embarrassed diplomat to spend fifteen minutes appreciatively admiring the floral patterns on the carpet to avoid looking up). In the second interview, a more intentionally hurried affair wherein the journalists surprise Kim in the middle of one of his infamous (and CIA-attested) goat-orgies along with North Korea's senior military staff, Park manages to deliver a chillingly calm and rational defense of his regime's policies despite the ball-gag, and even contrives to order his harem girls to continue administering the electric shocks to his genitals, all without losing his temper or raising his voice. It's a performance that could not have been any easier to produce than anything Christian Bale has ever done, and credit must be paid to Park for his masterful display of the craft.

And yet the film, to my surprise, does not restrict itself to skewering the admittedly low-hanging fruit of North Korea's ludicrous regime. Rogan and Franco, Hollywood insiders though they are, simply cannot restrict themselves from dealing harshly with the materialistic world around them. Guy Pierce, playing Sony Pictures Entertainment Chairman Michael Lynton, turns in a role I regard as his best (admittedly not a particularly high bar), having gained over two hundred pounds for the role and agreeing to have what is claimed to be pig feces (I hope, for his sake, it was merely chocolate) smeared over his face and mouth six or seven times throughout the runtime. Co-chairman Amy Pascal (played by Jennifer Garner, at last having found a role I like) is meanwhile depicted as pouring over the backlog of Sony's film library with a microscope looking for anything that might insult someone. The scene where she dances drunkenly around a bonfire consuming the master tapes of Casablanca is a standout bit of work from an actress I had long suspected had no actual talent within her. But the pick of the lot has got to be Vincent D'onofrio, who is a changed man playing Sony's President Doug Belgrad. Sweating grotesquely, D'onofrio here lets himself look far worse than anything that ever happened in Men in Black, fauning over everyone nearby with a sleazy, mincing mien that turns the stomach and the ear. And yet this is plainly the intended-for effect, as director Evan Goldberg combs the depths of depravity to portray this man in the most hideous, grotesque manner possible. I was not prepared for the graphic, hardcore snuff-and-sex scene which D'onofrio subjects himself to near the end of the film, and while I intellectually know that the flames of the butaine lighters used to torture the smuggled children were all CGI or other movie fakery, I have to report that the sequence is incredibly disturbing to watch, enough to put one off Sony films for a good long while.

Things Havoc disliked:  Not everything can be perfect of course, not with a subject matter like North Korea, the most secretive regime on the face of the planet. For example, I could not help but notice in the aforementioned goat orgy sequence that the goats in question were clearly Thuringians, something I can probably forgive given that the Dear Leader's absolute proclivity towards the similarly-appearing Black Zhongwei goats is known only to a few scholars of obscure zoophilias. Similarly, the rate of fire of the Chinese type-81 Squad Machine gun is approximately 700 rounds per minute, too slow for a trio of the guns to kill literally every one of the three or four thousand political prisoners we see lined up for the mass sacrifices intended to accompany Kim's birthday celebrations in less than a minute of work, even with pinpoint accuracy. As to the sequence wherein the Sony board of directors lines up to perform acts of hardcore felatio on Kim's senior ministers, I can only report that I am gratified that no crude gay jokes were hurled their way during the course of the scene, as such homophobic remarks have become truly passe in the modern culture of Hollywood.

Otherwise, the only criticism I can level at the film is really a simple lack of ambition. I know this seems a strange thing to throw at a movie produced by Seth Rogan of all people, someone known for thoughtless comedies like The Neighbors or Seth and Miri Make a Porno, but the base fact is that after the first half hour of the movie and its shameless expose of the regime and the film industry's sins, I did expect to see more. A nod towards the North Korean policy of generational guilt would have been nice. While the seven-year old girl we see Kim torture to death with barbed wire is hinted at having been the victim of such a policy, something a bit more explicitly called out would have not gone awry. Similarly, the all-too-brief sequences of mass starvation are undercut by the crude comedy surrounding it, leading to the uncomfortable feeling that we are intended to laugh at the victims of this regime instead of pity them.

Final Thoughts:  That said, I doubt seriously that was the intention, as nobody capable of making a movie this daring, this fearless, and this filled with scathing critique is capable of actually harboring such infantile and awful concepts. One might from there accuse the filmmakers of themselves becoming mouthpieces of one of the most evil regimes on the planet, chilling the expression of free speech for decades to come, and actively seeking to oppress and persecute anyone who dares rock the boat against a manifest evil such as North Korea. Such a claim would be laughable however, as Sony has proven themselves the stalwart champions of free speech and common decency, persisting in calling a spade a spade no matter who tries to intimidate them, letting all audiences see the movie that, while no masterpiece, is a fine reminder of the fact that in a free country, we have the right to be stupid when we wish to.

My hat is off to you, Sony. You have redeemed my faith in the medium of film.


Monday, December 8, 2014

The Homesman

Alternate Title:  Bitches Be Crazy

One sentence synopsis:    A single pioneer woman and an old-hand claim jumper must take three catatonic women from Nebraska to Iowa in the early 1850s.

Things Havoc liked:  Like with many movies in this review project, I chose to see this movie because of its cast, a cast that could sunder mountains and leap tall buildings with a single bound. Hilary Swank, Meryl Streep, James Spader, John Lithgow, William Fichtner, Hailee Steinfeld, this is the cast you assemble when it's time to blow me away. And when the movie in question is a western, then casting someone like Tommy Lee Jones as the lead (effectively) is the icing atop the cake. Jones is a national treasure, one of my favorite actors, whom I enjoy watching even in bad movies (I can even stomach Batman Forever), and particularly when it comes to Westerns, one of the grand old men of the art form, worthy of being spoken of in company with Clint Eastwood or James Coburn. In everything from Lonesome Dove to The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Jones has shown himself an almost quintessential western actor, and given that he also co-produced and directed this movie (as he did the aforementioned Three Burials), I was stoked to see this. It also helped that my alternatives were Dumb and Dumber Too or The Interview.

I've been hearing lengthy, wizened recitations on "The Death of the Western" for as long as I've been alive, so if you don't mind, we'll leave the post-modern millenerianism at the door. That said, the Homesman is not a traditional western, being bereft of gunfights, action in general, or, to be perfectly frank, the West. Set in Nebraska of the 1850s, one of the starkest and bleakest landscapes I've ever imagined, the focus here is not on the West as a place of opportunity and adventure, nor even a place of hardship and loss, but a place of almost unfathomable isolation combined with abjectly primitive conditions that lead one to wonder what possible fate could draw people out there. No excited wagon trains of would-be settlers seeking a better life here, this is a cold, miserable place, where people eke out a living while desperately trying to retain their very sanity. Poised on the knife-edge of this struggle is Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a single woman approaching middle age (a rarity to say the least back then), whose prospects for marriage and simple companionship are dampened by her blunt nature, plain looks (it takes some doing to make Hilary Swank look homely), and the sheer lack of people in Nebraska, particularly single men. I haven't seen Swank in ten years, not since Million Dollar Baby, but she fits right back into the swing of things here, as a somewhat-neurotic frontierswoman who volunteers to help take three completely crazy women back to Iowa, despite the fact that it means leaving her evidently prosperous homestead behind. One gets the very real sense from her, though it is never spelled out, that she isn't doing this out of the kindness of her heart, but because she suspects that if she spends one more minute in Nebraska, she will actually go mad. I've known quite a few people who've gone through that state even today who could sympathize.

Tommy Lee Jones meanwhile, plays George Briggs, though we never discover if this is his real name or not, a claim jumper whom Cuddy encounters while being lynched, and enlists to help her get the three women in question back to civilization where they can be cared for. Given the women's catatonia, and Cuddy's own bag of issues, Jones, in consequence, gets to play the adult in the room most of the time, something he's always been good at. We learn bits and pieces about him from half-mentioned anecdotes and small gestures, and unlike a number of writer/director/actors I could mention (Costner comes to mind), Jones clearly does not intend for him to be a stand-in for Jesus. He drinks, gambles, drunkenly dances and sings to the accompaniment of his own gunfire, to say nothing of his claim jumping in the first place. That said, the movie does not really deal in such concepts as "good" and "bad" guys, having neither villains to defeat nor heroes to follow. It is merely the story of a number of people in a strange place doing a strange thing, and what befalls them as they try to do it.

Things Havoc disliked:  Or rather that's what it would be about if anything actually befell these people.

I occasionally encounter movies like this, films that want to be defined more by what they aren't than by what they are. This isn't always a bad idea, but it does lend itself to issues where a film, desirous of not being a "traditional" thing, forgets to be anything whatsoever. The trailers, cut together as they are to promise a narrative, really represent instead the entire film's narrative pushed together, with the rest of the film being filled with... well nothing really. And given just how much of the cast I have yet to speak of, that's quite a problem.

Let's begin with the crazy women in question, all three of whom are given hints towards an actual backstory, one having lost her children to diptheria, one raped repeatedly by her husband, and the third having gone simply mad enough to kill her own newborn baby. Played by, among other people Miranda Otto (Eowyn), and Grace Gummer (daughter of Meryl Streep), one could imagine all manner of interesting stories being told through the lenses of these women who found life on the frontier utterly intolerable and lost their minds as a result. Instead, the movie treats them like props, leaving them catatonic and mute the entire length of the film, MacGuffins for the main characters to labor over getting to Iowa. No character development whatsoever is afforded to them, which would be fine if the intention of the story were to present a situation wherein change is impossible or some other sort of stylistic choice. But instead it's as though the entire purpose of having these characters was forgotten about, and the film might as well have been about transporting mules.

And it's not just the three mental patients that this happens to. Assembling a cast of actors this talented had to be hard work. The least you could do would be to find something for them to do. Meryl Streep, of all people, who I maintain is the best actor in the world, gets about five minutes of screentime near the end of the movie, where her role is... well damned if I know what her role is. She seems to exist purely to relieve one character of a plot device. James Spader meanwhile turns up halfway through the film as a hotelier in the middle of nowhere, a role so strange that I can only assume that vast chunks of his work was left on the cutting room floor. Halee Steinfeld, who was so good in True Grit (my very first review!) seems to exist solely so that Tommy Lee Jones can buy her a pair of shoes. I realize that a film this stacked is gonna have limited space to go around, but nothing happens in this movie for most of its runtime. Surely with this many actors in this rich a setting with this much potential for psychodrama, SOMETHING could have been come up with?

Or maybe not. Maybe this was the intention all along, to present some kind of super-minimalist western in the vein of a Jim Jarmush film or something. But if that's the case, then the same question applies here that I ask whenever Jim Jarmush himself comes to town: Why? Why was this film made? What story seemed so vital that it needed to be told? Was this supposed to be some kind of mediation on Prairie Madness (yes, it was a thing. Click the link)? If so, why do we get to do nothing with the crazy women beyond checking in on them once in a while to make sure that yep, still crazy! Was it a character study of Swank and Lee's characters? Maybe, but then why do we not actually get to see their characters in more than snippets, and why does so much of the movie consist of them not revealing anything to the audience. The film gets so obsessed by the end with not being any kind of "traditional" western (which is dead, you know) that it winds up not being anything at all. The last forty-five minutes of the film in particular, while they are shot and acted well (as was inevitable given the cast in question), almost literally consists of nothing more than a series of events, unconnected with one another, which happen, and then are over. Nothing is learned. Nothing is done.

Final thoughts:   I cited Jim Jarmush above, because he's made movies like this one before, among them the almost unwatchable Dead Man, which also starred a number of A-list actors in a western setting accomplishing not very much at all. The Homesman is nowhere near as unbearable as Dead Man was, but it is still a fairly boring movie, competently executed, but for purposes I cannot fathom, even a week later. My viewing companion, whose perspective on these things is very different than mine (for which everyone concerned is grateful), informed me that this movie has received a great deal of attention in feminist circles, though why this is the case, neither she nor I could guess. It is a movie about two people taking three catatonic other people across an empty terrain until they no longer have to do so. If that's your cup of tea, then look no further.

As for me? I think I'll stick to Jim Jarmush-like films actually made by Jim Jarmush. If nothing else, his boring movies are usually inventive.

Final Score:  5/10

Next Week:   Either war docs or Iranian vampires.  TUNE IN NEXT TIME TO FIND OUT!!!

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